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Democratic Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks at a rally in Duluth, Georgia on October 24, 2020.

ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images

The Democrats have taken control of the United States Senate with victories in two Georgia runoff elections, giving president-elect Joe Biden an easier road to pass his agenda and delivering a sharp rebuke to outgoing President Donald Trump two weeks before he leaves office.

Raphael Warnock, the 51-year-old senior pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta, and Jon Ossoff, 33, a documentary filmmaker, narrowly defeated Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on Wednesday in a pair of stunning upsets in what had once been a reliably red state.

The election unfolded amid Mr. Trump’s attempt to cling to power by claiming his defeat by Mr. Biden in November was rigged. Mr. Trump even targeted his own party’s officials in Georgia when they refused to help him overturn the result, a move that may have pushed down Republican turnout in the Senate races.

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Live election results from Georgia’s runoff races: What’s at stake in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate

How will Congress confirm Joe Biden as president today? Next steps in the transition of power from Donald Trump

In an online victory speech Mr. Warnock, the first Black senator from his state, called for the country to close the door on an era of fractious politics.

“In this moment in American history, Washington has a choice to make. In fact, all of us has a choice to make. Will we continue to divide, distract and dishonour one another, or will we love our neighbours as we love ourselves?” he said. “Will we play political games while real people suffer, or will we win righteous fights together standing shoulder to shoulder?”

The result leaves the Senate divided 50 to 50 between the two parties. With vice president-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes, the Democrats will hold the narrowest of majorities. They also control the House of Representatives.

In the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races in recent memory, the parties poured a record US$800-million into the state, and both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump personally campaigned there. Retaining one or both seats would give the Republicans a majority in the Senate, and the ability to block Mr. Biden’s legislation. For the Democrats, winning both would leave the Senate evenly divided, with incoming vice-president Kamala Harris breaking ties.

Congress was set to confirm Mr. Biden’s victory Wednesday, even as Mr. Trump’s allies vowed to stage a final attempt to have the result thrown out. As Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff rose in the vote count Tuesday night, the President floated another evidence-free conspiracy theory on Twitter, claiming that a “voter dump” was underway in Georgia.

The vote unfolded in a rapidly changing state that showcased the divisions so evident in the presidential election. An increasingly diverse constituency in Atlanta and its suburbs embraced Democratic promises of better health care, action on climate change and a more effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republicans, meanwhile, solidified their rural base by accusing their opponents of being dangerous socialists and disparaging anti-racism protesters.

Mr. Biden will need the Senate’s help to pass several crucial pieces of his campaign platform. These include “public option” health care, a voluntary government-run plan to compete with private insurance plans; US$2-trillion in climate change spending; and changes to immigration laws that would create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. The Senate must also confirm Mr. Biden’s cabinet appointees, and his picks for federal judgeships.

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Mr. Warnock, who grew up in public housing in Savannah, Ga. as one of 12 children, and Mr. Ossoff, who runs a company that makes documentary films, campaigned as centrists. They promised expanded health care and better race relations, but rejected a single-payer Medicare-for-all system and defunding of the police. They also tried to portray Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler, both wealthy former business executives, as corrupt plutocrats for making advantageous stock trades after receiving private briefings on the severity of COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

Mr. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, outpaced Mr. Ossoff, by tens of thousands of votes. Ms. Loeffler, who was sometimes criticized as stiff and scripted in campaign appearances, polled more poorly than Mr. Perdue.

Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler ran hard-right campaigns inspired by Mr. Trump, seeking to paint their opponents as Marxist sympathizers. Both Republicans supported Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud, and Ms. Loeffler touted her record of never voting against the President in the Senate. Ms. Loeffler has also attacked Black Lives Matter, accusing the racial justice movement of causing “violence and destruction.” Mr. Perdue, for his part, mocked Ms. Harris’s South Asian first name at a rally.

Mr. Perdue, 71, sought a second six-year term in a regular election against Mr. Ossoff, 33. Ms. Loeffler, 50, and Mr. Warnock competed in a special election to finish the last two years of Johnny Isakson’s term. Mr. Isakson quit the Senate in 2019, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp appointed Ms. Loeffler to the seat until the election could be held.

Georgia is one of a handful of states that require candidates to win 50 per cent of the vote or face a runoff with the top-two contenders. In November, Mr. Perdue edged Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Warnock bested Ms. Loeffler, but no candidate won a majority of the vote.

Turnout was high for an election without presidential candidates on the ballot, and looked set to top 60 per cent of eligible voters, a few per centage points behind the turnout in November. A record three million people voted early by mail or at advance polling stations. By comparison, another hotly contested special Senate race in Alabama in 2017 drew 40.5-per-cent turnout.

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Democrats have been encouraging supporters to vote early, while Republicans were more inclined to cast ballots on Election Day.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, raised fears among Republicans that his election-fraud rhetoric could push down the party’s turnout by making supporters distrust the electoral system. He also repeatedly bashed Mr. Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, for refusing to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory.

In a telephone call to Mr. Raffensperger, the audio of which was posted online by The Washington Post, Mr. Trump demanded that Mr. Raffensperger “find” enough votes for Mr. Trump to win. He also threatened Mr. Raffensperger with legal consequences if he did not uncover non-existent election fraud.

Some of Mr. Trump’s congressional allies are planning to challenge the election results when Congress meets Wednesday to formally accept the Electoral College’s votes. Thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, descended on Washington on Tuesday. But Congress is expected to confirm Mr. Biden’s victory: The House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats, and several Republican senators are expected to also vote in favour of confirming the election result.

Georgia was the closest state in the presidential election, going for Mr. Biden by fewer than 12,000 votes. He was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there since Bill Clinton in 1992.

- With a file from The Associated Press

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